Raising the Bar on Privacy


surveillance philosophy

There’s a common attitude many people have regarding privacy. I’m not talking about nothing to hide, although that is also a very common attitude. It has been refuted ad nauseum by privacy advocates, so I won’t do it again here. I’m talking about the feeling people have that the corporate/government surveillance state (Big Brother) will collect their data one way or another no matter what, so there’s no point in even trying to avoid mass surveillance. Privacy is already dead. Mass surveillance and its long-term negative side-effects are inevitable. That’s the attitude of so many people and it’s disappointing. So, I’m going to offer an alternative way to think about privacy and surveillance.

First, let’s be clear. Privacy is not just a personal preference. It’s not just a social necessity either. It’s a biological necessity as basic as breathing. It allows us all to be human. It is the right to be imperfect. Therefore, it must be protected. There is no point in asking if it’s too late to stop mass surveillance because there’s no alternative to curtailing it. It must be stopped. Democracy can only withstand so much surveillance. Mass surveillance in its current form and true democracy cannot coexist indefinitely. Surveillance tools combined with AI will only get more powerful as time passes. To put it frankly, we are either going to reign in mass surveillance or democracy will perish. We have to reject the defeatist excuse that we’ve already lost to mass surveillance and so we shouldn’t even try to restore privacy. That’s just a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The alternative, yet realistic way of thinking (as opposed to defeatism) that I want to introduce is what I call “raising the bar on privacy”. It’s a very simple idea. Maybe Big Brother can still get our data even if we take steps to increase our privacy. Even if the defeatist is right that our data can or will be collected anyway, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make it as difficult as possible. Let’s not hand over our data on a silver platter at least, right? If enough of us take steps to increase our privacy, we will make it more difficult and more expensive for Big Brother to collect our data. We collectively “raise the bar on privacy”. Even if we can’t fully insulate our own lives from Big Brother, if we can force Big Brother to resort to the more powerful means of surveillance (think 0-day exploits, targeted surveillance, hardware/firmware backdoors) more often instead of the low-hanging fruit of collecting our data from big tech companies, then our society will gain several benefits:

  1. As privacy-friendly tools gain popularity, people that use them won’t become especially “interesting” to Big Brother anymore.
  2. The desire for privacy won’t be viewed as a cause for suspicion of wrongdoing, but instead as a basic biological need that everyone is entitled to.
  3. The perception of increased privacy on its own will cause individuals to speak and act more freely, reducing social cooling and making it easier to speak out against mass surveillance.
  4. Big Brother will be forced into using more powerful surveillance tools more frequently to collect the same data it already does, thus increasing its public exposure.
  5. Free software will become more widespread since it’s a necessary precondition for digital privacy.
  6. Proprietary software will become less widespread since people will use free software in its place.

To sum up this post in a way that makes sense to security-minded people: our minimum acceptable lower bound for a threat model should be avoiding mass surveillance so that we raise the bar on privacy.